Last Updated: Sun Oct 17, 2010 00:07 am (KSA) 21:07 pm (GMT)

Tehran plays games with jailed hikers – like they did with me

Iason Athanasiadis

The three Americans arrested by Iranian border guards when they allegedly strayed over the Iran-Iraq border during a hiking expedition have disappeared behind the Iranian prison bureaucracy for more than a year. A few weeks more and their detention will exceed the 444 days that the revolutionary government held US diplomats in 1979.

Last Friday, the Islamic Republic flip-flopped on a promise made to the prisoners and their families. First, it announced the release of one of them, Sarah Shourd, on humanitarian grounds. There was no official statement or liaison with the Swiss embassy that represents the US in Iran – just an SMS sent to the mobile phones of the few remaining foreign journalists living in Iran.

As the only woman of the three detainees, Ms Shourd, 32, is being held in isolation. Her health had deteriorated even before a lump in her breast and precancerous cervical cells were discovered.

But just as the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepared for a televised show of compassion, Tehran’s chief prosecutor stuck a spanner in the works with a terse statement overruling the president. Then on Sunday, Ms Shourd’s release was made conditional on $500,000 (Dh1.8 million) bail.

Iran will eventually release all three hostages, whom it has unconstitutionally kept inside a high-security prison without charge since July 2009. But until then, the twists and turns taking place in Tehran belie the Islamic Republic’s claim to be a law-abiding democracy that respects human rights.

Just over a year ago, I was the victim of similar games. Iran’s intelligence ministry detained me as I was leaving the country after I had spent a week reporting on the tumultuous presidential elections as an accredited journalist for The Washington Times. Two plainclothes goons beat me in full view of dozens of people at Tehran’s international airport before spiriting me off to Evin Prison.

Three surreal weeks followed. I was kept in solitary confinement and subjected to repeated interrogations and accusations that I was a western spy. Without books, access to a telephone, visitors or the chance to exercise, the long lonely hours were punctuated by bizarre conversations I overheard between jailers and prisoners in neighbouring cells, roundabout interviews with my bazjoo (interrogator), and the interminable squeak of the tea waiter’s trolley.

The Greek government did its best to secure my release. When the day finally came, I was subjected to one last prank. At the airport, the Greek ambassador handed me my return ticket to Athens. But no sooner had we drunk a last cup of tea and he had departed, then another set of goons rearrested me and threw me into the airport jail.

I was back in jail but no one knew. In the neoclassical halls of Athens’s government, the foreign minister was thanking the Iranian government through the Greek media and the semi-official Fars news agency in Tehran was reporting my release on “humanitarian” grounds. Meanwhile, I was sitting in a cell, listening to luggage thump through a chute somewhere over my head and feeling like a character in the movie Groundhog Day.

The next day, I was packed into a car and driven to an office in central Tehran where an incredulous Greek ambassador watched as an Iranian colonel tried to coerce me into signing a confession that I had acted against Iranian national security. There was no logic to this. I had already been cleared by intelligence ministry officials who told me that they thought I was innocent and apologised that the unrest after the elections had made a “misunderstanding that should have been cleared up in 48 hours” into three weeks of detention.

Why did the Iranians rearrest me? Was it factional infighting between those who saw the benefit in releasing an innocent reporter and those who wanted to hold onto me as a pawn? After keeping me for three weeks, had they discovered some damning piece of evidence against me in the two hours between my release from Evin and arrival at the airport? Or was it simply a case of one last hazing before I was sent home?

As with the hikers and so much of the Islamic Republic’s frankly embarrassing and irrational public behaviour, it was probably the last explanation. Whether in stained torture rooms, the halls of Middle East diplomacy, or even the corners of an average party in Tehran, Iranian officials seem to revel in showing that they are in control.

A few days after the three Americans were detained, one of their family members called me to ask my opinion about how to proceed. It was a bad moment for Americans to fall in Iranian hands. The carrots proffered by President Barack Obama in his first months in office had dissipated in mutual recrimination and the threat of sanctions.

I couldn’t think of a more considerate comment on their predicament than to say that as long as they were not transferred from the Iraq-Iran border to Tehran, they should be fine. A few days later, it was announced that they had been moved to the capital. The on-again, off-again saga of their imprisonment was under way.

A year later, I can still thank Greece’s campaign for my release. It was inspired by cultural sensitivity and respect between equals that for centuries infused diplomacy between the Byzantines and the Sassanians. In addition to behind-the-scenes diplomacy, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Communion, Bartholomew I, made a public appeal for my release from his seat on the Bosphorus. In a theocracy led by an ayatollah who shuns ordinary politicians, Patriarch Bartholomew’s words were listened to respectfully.

Whatever injustices have been inflicted upon Iran by the West – real and perceived – the continued imprisonment of three innocent Americans only fuels antipathy against the Islamic Republic. The longer that Tehran plays games with their fate, the worse it is for the country.

*Published in The UAE-based THE NATIONAL on Sept. 13. Iason Athanasiadis is an Istanbul-based writer and photographer who lived in Iran between 2004 and 2007.

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